Tucson schools suspend Mexican American studies class

Wednesday , January 11, 2012 - 11:24 AM

Stephan Ceasar

The Tucson Unified School District voted late Tuesday to suspend its controversial Mexican American studies program rather than lose more than $14 million in funding after Arizona's state schools chief ruled the program violated the law.

During a raucous session that included passionate public comments and accusations of cowardice, the board voted 4-1 to suspend the classes. If it had not, the district would have lost about $5 million in state funding in February, retroactive to last August, and $14.4 million over the fiscal year, according to the state Department of Education.

The new law bans classes that are primarily designed for a particular ethnic group or that "promote resentment toward a race or class of people." Last week, state superintendent of public instruction John Huppenthal ruled the Tucson program in violation.

The board could have gone to court to contest his decision, as well as his order that 10 percent of the district's monthly share of state aid be withheld until the program came into compliance. It decided not to do so.

As the board prepared to vote and the outcome became clear, one member of the audience shouted: "Cowards, you are cowards!"

Huppenthal actually ruled the program in violation last June. The district appealed that decision to an administrative law judge, who rejected its appeal in December.

Only one legal challenge remains: a federal suit filed by 11 teachers and two students contending the law violates their First Amendment rights. They sought an injunction to prevent the law from taking effect while the suit proceeds.

Earlier Tuesday evening, U.S. Circuit Court Judge A. Wallace Tashima in Tucson refused to grant the injunction but permitted the lawsuit to go forward. He ruled that the two students have standing to sue, but the teachers do not.

Proponents of the ethnic studies program say the classes push Latinos to excel and teach a long-neglected slice of America's cultural heritage -- Latino perspectives on literature, history and social justice.

Its critics -- led by Huppenthal, a veteran state senator elected schools chief last year -- say that framing historical events in racial terms "to create a sense of solidarity" promotes groupthink and victimhood. "It has a very toxic effect, and we think it's just not tolerable in an educational setting," he has said.

Before the vote, school board member Adelita S. Grijalva asked her colleagues to understand that the program's supporters are not promoting ethnic solidarity. Instead, she said, they are passionate about education.

"We have an opportunity to fight a law that has picked out (Tucson Unified School District), not all ethnic studies courses, but just Mexican American courses," she said, to loud cheers from the audience. "We need to fight, and the only remedy is to appeal ... the law."

"It is unconstitutional and it is racist," she added.

Another board member, Miguel Cuevas, said he disagrees with the law and supports the program, but has sworn to abide by the laws of the state.

"It is the district's responsibility to revamp the program to reach a much broader segment of our student population," Cuevas said.

The board voted that all Mexican American studies courses and teaching activities be suspended immediately. Grijalva was the lone dissenter.

In the federal court case, the 11 teachers contended that the law violated their constitutional rights and would be likely to result in their dismissal. Tashima disagreed, ruling that terminating the ethnic studies program would not necessarily cost the teachers their jobs, and that the program could survive by complying with Huppenthal's ruling.

Tashima rejected the teachers' First Amendment argument, ruling that speech made while teaching falls within a teacher's "official duties" and thus has no constitutional protection.

But the two students do have legal standing to challenge the law, he ruled, because they are Latinos who intend to take the classes in the future and could not do so if the classes were eliminated.

Visit the Los Angeles Times at www.latimes.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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